Venting an opinion

John Fleming on Nina Conti's new film

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies – but, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush's drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices. Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti’s documentary Her Master’s Voice - she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original - often means being criticised, which no one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

 Her Master’s Voice is Conti’s wonderfully quirky love-letter documentary to Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial. In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind, but in a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about ‘playing God with other people’ – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s ‘bereaved puppets’ she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that ‘creativity and insanity are almost the same thing’ and the doll ‘gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator’ while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her ‘an extra dimension’.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems Of The Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening at the recent Fortean Times UnConvention, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be. This is an extraordinarily successful documentary. Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

Published: 17 Nov 2011

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